Flannery O'Connor: Looking in from the Outside

Article excerpt

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Gooch (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009)

An unusual feature of Flannery O'Connor's genius is her ability to reach audiences far removed from the mysterious Catholic, Thomistic core of her stories. While the denizens of secularism are poised to ridicule Judeo-Christianity, especially when Mel Gibson has too much to drink, O'Connor has not caused such hostilities. Her place among agnostics, unbelievers, and even atheists is secure, and she gets begrudging respect, if not admiration, from a multifaceted audience. George Rayber, the obsessed faithless "schoolteacher" in The Violent Bear It Away, notes that belief is a "curse" afflicting innocent children; Hazel Motes in Wise Blood preaches "the Church without Jesus" from the hood of his car and proclaims: "Your conscience is a trick. ... It don't exist though you may think it does." (1) In her characters and in an idiom called by Rayber "irrational, backwoods and ignorant," O'Connor anticipated by a half century the fashionable antireligious rants of Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens. Maher recently observed, "Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It's nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders keeping mankind in bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction." (2) Maher's icy disdain echoes Rayber and Motes. O'Connor's caricatures of atheism have achieved satiric permanence. For those who watch Maher or listen to Hitchens's proclamation that "God is not great," there will always be O'Connor's satirical characters challenging the most hardened irreligious to laugh.

While it was a short distance from O'Connor's barnyard to her front porch in Milledgeville, it would seem to be a long trek from the same porch to the New York of Brad Gooch. Aside from his impressive scholarly credentials, he also wrote two books challenging the belligerence of gay activism: Finding the Boyfriend Within: A Practical Guide for Tapping into Your Own Source of Love, Happiness, and Respect (2002) and a sequel, Dating the Greek Gods: Empowering Spiritual Messages on Sex and Love, Creativity and Wisdom (2003). Years before, Gooch notes, when he began reading Flannery O'Connor, he detected "qualities" in her that were "thirteenth century"--"the subtle tug of a spiritual quest in a dark universe animated by grace and significance."

Gooch is aware of the religious mystery in O'Connor's stories but lacks at crucial times a deeper understanding of her work's theological complexities (he is on surer footing in his other biography, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara). Biographers of O'Connor (there have been only a handful) clearly sense. the presence of grace and spiritual mystery in her stories, but they often approach her from the perspective of what O'Connor's writer-compatriot Walker Percy identifies as religious science. Its method is to view Christian faith as a cultural phenomenon with its own tribal rites little different from other religions. Christ, Marx, Muhammad, and Saint Francis essentially are all humanists while Jewish exiles in the Old Testament are little different from any other dispossessed people. O'Connor became incensed when the fashionable Swedish psychologist Carl Jung used this approach to suggest that the founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius Loyola, was no different from Karl Marx because they both founded communities. O'Connor wrote a clerical friend, the Reverend James H. McCown: "Jung has something to offer religion but is at the same time very dangerous for it. Jung would say, for instance, that Christ did not rise from the dead literally but we must realize that we need this symbol, that the notion has significance for our lives symbolically etc." (3)

A theological heir to patristic commentators such as Origen and Augustine, O'Connor is unambiguous when it conies to faith in the sacraments. …